2013 has been a good year for Janelle Monae. The inventive R&B songstress released her second album, The Electric Lady, to critical acclaim and enthusiastic fan response. Eclectic, thought-provoking and damn fun, it's been popping up on a ton of Best of 2013 lists, including our own 41 Best Albums of the Year. Just ahead of her New Year's Eve performance at Atlanta's 25th Annual Peach Drop Powered by M&M's Peanut (Georgia's riotous take on the Times Square ball drop), Fuse spoke with Monae about her musical mentors Prince and Erykah Badu, what's in store for 2014 and her interesting pick for the Best Album of 2013.
The Electric Lady is popping up on a ton of year-end lists, and rightly so. What's your favorite album of the last year?
The same one that you just mentioned: The Electric Lady. I'm honestly a fan of it, outside of being one of the narrators of the album and the singer. So many amazing artists that I'm a fan of are all on this album, from Erykah Badu to Miguel to Solange Knowles to one of my musical heroes, Prince. It was clearly the best album that came out of 2013 from a musical standpoint. From the live instrumentation on it—horn arrangements, the orchestra—to the concept and the videos, everything about this project made it my favorite of 2013.
So you actually sit down and listen to your own album for fun?
Yeah, absolutely. I perform the songs and I really believe in the message and everything that it stands for. The total concept of The Electric Lady is what it means to be a 21st century woman, and how community is involved. I look at "Victory" when I want to be motivated and inspired, or I put on "Q.U.E.E.N." or the title track or "Ghetto Woman." There are so many great songs. It's a versatile album. I get everything I really want to hear with this album.
You just opened for Prince at Madison Square Garden. Is that nerve-wracking or are you two pretty tight at this point?
He and I are close friends, and he's a mentor to me as well. We've had a lot of private conversations about the state of the music industry and he really does give me insight. I feel comfortable around him—we're like family. Whenever we're together and the two bands are playing, it's all love. It's like musical theater. We're kids playing around.
There are so many great collaborations on The Electric Lady. Did you write the music together or present your collaborators with an already-finished song?
A lot of them came from organic conversations. Erykah [Badu] and I are really close, she's a very close friend of mine. She's also like a mentor and has been in the industry a while. And "Q.U.E.E.N." was inspired by one of our private conversations about women and gender roles and discrimination and people who are marginalized. We really wanted to bring community together and do an anthem for women and those who are oppressed. It's for encouraging and inspiring them to love themselves for their unique characteristics, even if it makes other people uncomfortable. Everything in the songs are things [the collaborator and I] talked about. It could have been a conversation from six months ago, and I'll say, "I think this will be a great song, remember when we talked about this?" And the song with Miguel, "PrimeTime," that was one of my favorites. I think he has a great way of speaking to people, especially women. We wanted to create a love song, and it's my favorite love song of 2013 [Note: Ours too! It's on Fuse's 41 Best Songs of 2013]. Also, I got a chance to produce all the artists I worked with. For them to allow me to come in and guide them and to trust me in that way, I'm forever grateful.
Your android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather and a variety of sci-fi themes work their way through all your music. Would you ever do an album that has nothing to do with any of that?
Sure, absolutely. I have several concepts already worked out. But I'm a writer and I love science fiction. Cindi is a part of me, I'm a part of you—we all share the same DNA. I don't speak about androids just for the sake of it. The android represents the other and the other could represent the woman, those who are marginalized, the minority or those who are excommunicated from their religion. Messages are a part of my vision as a writer. I grew up watching science fiction with my grandmother and I grew up writing short stories. I look up to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whom I had the opportunity to meet. I also watched a lot of Twilight Zone and I really do love and appreciate Blade Runner. A lot of books inspired me, like those from Octavia E. Butler, who was an African-American woman science fiction writer. It's not just about being the great singer or making songs: There's a secret vision here and cinema has definitely inspired my writing. I'm into big ideas and concepts and things that can stretch out and have life.
What are your plans for 2014? Will you do more videos for The Electric Lady? Are you demoing any new material?
It's a secret. I have learned to keep my lips sealed until the timing is right. I will say there are a lot of things up my sleeve. The next one is ringing in the New Year in Atlanta with an electric performance. We're going to do a helluva show. It's so incredible to be able to perform such a historic, traditional event in Atlanta: The Peach Drop. And to be the headlining performer on New Year's Eve is an incredible way to end the year.